After 51 years of summer weeks in which writers have congregated in the Sierra for the Community of Writers’ annual conference, who would have thought there’d be an August in Olympic Valley when authors’ voices would be silent? But in 2020 and 2021, the silence was profound. No words resonated below the tram and chairlifts of Squaw Valley ski resort. No voices rose to meet the high granite walls. No poets were present. No screenwriters. No novelists. No memoirists or essayists. Yet, there was chatter this year. A lot of chatter — in a virtual valley.
In 2020, for what was supposed to be the Community of Writers’ 50th celebratory year, the poetry workshop and two small fiction and memoir workshops moved online, another side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The key term is pivot,” noted Sands Hall, daughter of Oakley Hall, co-founder of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (now Community of Writers). “Instead of postponing, we pivoted.”
With the help of Tahoe locals Julia and Jared Drake of Wildbound Media, Hall’s sister Brett Hall Jones’s ingenuity in mixing things up as executive director, and the willingness of the Community’s board and staff to change protocol, the conference forged forward. Despite changing the format into one that is virtual, maintaining the sense of community that inspired the name Community of Writers in the first place was a priority. In addition to a variety of virtual offerings, Wildbound aided in creating Festival Day, a free, daylong gathering of writers in the virtual valley, featuring craft talks, panels, fiction and nonfiction readings, poetry, music, and more. The virtual option allowed Truckee/Tahoe locals and others to attend.
In a time when many have had about all they can bear of living in a virtual world, by the time planning started for this summer’s conference, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for Hall to develop an aversion to all things web, Zoom especially. Not only did Hall embrace the virtual format, she enthusiastically endorsed it, and for the 2021 series larger groups of fiction and nonfiction moved online as well.
This summer’s workshop found Hall, co-director of the memoir/nonfiction program, newly energized and passionate about the virtual option, and she beamed with pride at her sister’s varied contributions and the event’s overall success. When asked what format the workshop might take next year, Hall said it’s “hard to say.” With Covid case numbers steadily climbing, events are already being canceled left and right and uncertainty about what the future holds has planners hesitating.
The Community of Writers was established in 1969 by novelists Blair Fuller and Oakley Hall, both of whom raised their families in Olympic Valley. San Francisco writers David Perlman, Walter Ballenger, Barnaby Conrad, and John Leggett joined the creative think tank, becoming an integral part of the forum — and eventually moving on to found the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the Napa Valley Writers Conference.
Over the years, Hall, a novelist and memoirist herself, has joined a lineup of well-known authors. In fiction, guest speakers have included Amy Tan, Anne Lamott, Janet Fitch, Alex Espinoza, and Karen Joy Fowler. In nonfiction, Julia Flynn Siler and Frances Dinkelspiel; poetry, Kazim Ali and Brenda Hillman; and in memoir, Gail Tsukiyama and Grace Talusan.
As for the controversy of the conference’s original nomenclature, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hall recounted how when she was growing up in the valley she loved seeing a certain logo of a Native American mother and her papoose. But, now knowing the pejorative meaning of squaw, she proclaimed, “The nuances of that word are extremely degrading.”
Sands Hall, Brett Hall Jones and the Community of Writers board strive to be sensitive in their outlook and behavior, and yes, name, which grants another benefit to a virtual presence — diversity. With authors, teachers, and guest speakers tuning in from across the country and around the world, the makeup of staff and participants was more diverse than ever. Just another positive side of the virtual format.
Although virtual still provides a “place” to continue the telling of stories, surely Hall must have missed something by not mentoring in the valley she holds so dear to her heart.
“I do miss some parts,” she confessed, “I miss the aroma, the trees, the senses that are heightened in the mountains. I miss the spontaneity of someone passing me in the hall and telling me about a reading he/she/they enjoyed or a workshop that was particularly fruitful. I miss the smaller encounters, such as someone dropping by the office. And, it’s a funny thing, but there’s a foot railing at the bar in the Olympic Village that I always love putting my feet on while I drink a glass of wine and converse with a friend next to me. I miss that.”
Someone had mentioned to Hall that one of the highlights of the workshop in the past was gazing at the stars at night, high above the mountains. But Hall quoted Lisa Alvarez, co-director of the fiction workshop with Louis B. Jones, who said that stars are above us all no matter where we live, so we can enjoy them wherever we are.